Real Heroes: William Wilberforce

Most lovers of a free society want to be optimists. All that has to happen for liberty to be widely embraced is for people to open their minds and shed the baggage of the statist or socialist impulse. Simple enough, right? No. It isn’t simple at all, and that’s why too many lovers of liberty fall into the pessimism trap.

If winning the day were simple, we’d have won overwhelmingly — and permanently — long ago. Alas, it takes work. It takes time. It takes commitment. It entails setbacks along the way.

In spite of all that it has to offer, liberty enters the intellectual fray with two substantial disadvantages:

  1. It demands risk and restraint today in exchange for a better life a little later; and
  2. Like anything truly worthwhile, it must be painstakingly explained.

Socialism and other risky, interventionist schemes that push society in that direction appeal far more to thoughtless and immediate self-gratification — and they rest heavily on gimmicks, demagoguery, and bumper stickers.

Think about it. Mere slogans like the vapid “I’m for people, not for profit!” or the moronic “Socialism = Sharing” carry instant weight with the naturally large numbers of people who want politicians to give them something (whether power, subsidy, or attention) at the expense of their fellow citizens. We who advocate the restraint of political power and respect for property must take the time to invoke reason, logic, history, and economics.

We who advocate the restraint of political power and respect for property must take the time to invoke reason, logic, history, and economics. 

But facing a tough hill to climb is no reason to be pessimistic. Pessimism is a crippling mental handicap. It’s a self-fulfilling, surefire prescription for losing. If you think the cause is lost, you will behave accordingly — and drag others down with you. If you believe in liberty but can’t muster an optimistic attitude, then take my advice: find inspiration or get out of the way.

Whenever I sense a whiff of pessimism in my thinking, I shake it in a hurry by recalling the lives and contributions of great individuals who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to eventually prevail. A most fitting example is William Wilberforce, the man from Yorkshire who, along with other “real heroes” like Thomas Clarkson, was responsible for ending slavery throughout the British Empire.

Born in 1759, Wilberforce never had the physical presence one would hope to possess in a fight. His contemporary James Boswell called him a “shrimp.” Thin and short, Wilberforce compensated with a powerful vision, an appealing eloquence, and an indomitable will.

Elected to Parliament in 1780 at the age of 21, Wilberforce spoke out against the war with America in no uncertain terms, labeling it “cruel, bloody, and impractical.” But he drifted from issue to issue without a central focus until a conversion to Christianity sparked what would be his lifelong calling. Revolted by the hideous barbarity of the slave trade then prevalent in the world, he determined in October 1787 to work for its abolition.

Abolitionism was a tall order in the late 1700s. Viewed widely at the time as integral to British naval and commercial success, slavery was big business. It enjoyed broad political support, as well as widespread (though essentially racist) intellectual justification. For 75 years before Wilberforce set about to end the trade in slaves, and ultimately slavery itself, Britain enjoyed the sole right by treaty to supply Spanish colonies with captured Africans. The trade was lucrative for British slavers but savagely merciless for its millions of victims.

Wilberforce had reason to fear for his life.

Wilberforce labored relentlessly for his cause, forming and assisting organizations to spread the word about the inhumanity of one man’s owning another. “Our motto must continue to be perseverance,” he once told followers. And what a model of perseverance he was: he endured and overcame just about every obstacle imaginable, including ill health, derision from his colleagues, and defeats almost too numerous to count.

He rose in the House of Commons to give his first abolition speech in 1789, not knowing that it would take another 18 years before British law would end the slave trade. He addressed his fellow parliamentarians with these stirring words:

When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God? Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it; it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it; we may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision.

His was a call to conscience, to truth, and to the highest standards of character. It’s one thing to be indifferent to the cruelties of slavery for lack of knowledge; it is quite another to look askance once one is aware. At the close of another moving discourse in the House of Commons in 1791, he famously raised his voice and declared, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.”

Every year he introduced an abolition measure, and every time for 18 long years, it went nowhere. At least once, some of his own allies deserted him because the opposition gave them free tickets to attend the theater during a crucial vote. (They were the so-called “moderates” on the issue.)

The war with France that began in the 1790s often put the matter of slavery on the back burner. A bloody slave rebellion in the Caribbean seemed to give ammunition to slavery’s supporters. Wilberforce was often ridiculed and condemned as a traitorous rabble-rouser. He had reason to fear for his life.

The trade in slaves was officially over, but ending slavery itself remained the ultimate prize.

Once, in 1805 after yet another defeat in Parliament, Wilberforce was advised by a clerk of the Commons to give up the fight. He replied with the air of undying optimism that had come to characterize his stance on the issue: “I do expect to carry it.”

Indeed, what seemed once to be an impossible dream became reality in 1807. Abolition of the slave trade won Parliament’s overwhelming approval. Biographer David J. Vaughan reports, “As the attorney general, Sir Samuel Romilly, stood and praised the perseverance of Wilberforce, the House rose to its feet and broke out in cheers. Wilberforce was so overcome with emotion that he sat head in hand, tears streaming down his face.” Boswell’s shrimp had become a whale.

That mesmerizing moment is beautifully depicted in the 2005 film, Amazing Grace. I’ve watched the entire movie at least 30 times in the past decade and I never tire of it. (I’m also happy to report that thanks to the generosity of a donor a few years ago, FEE distributed 20,000 copies of it to families all over America.)

With that pivotal vote, the trade in slaves was officially over, but ending slavery itself remained the ultimate prize. To bring about abolition, Wilberforce worked for another 26 years, even after he left behind nearly a quarter century of service in Parliament in 1825. The great day finally came on July 26, 1833, when Britain enacted a peaceful emancipation (with compensation to slaveholders) and became the world’s first major nation to unshackle an entire race within its jurisdiction. Hailed as the hero who made it possible, Wilberforce died three days later.

The Parliament that once scorned him resolved that he should be buried near his friend and ally, Prime Minister William Pitt, in the north transept of London’s Westminster Abbey. Beneath a statue of Wilberforce seated in a chair reads this inscription:

To the memory of William Wilberforce (born in Hull, August 24th, 1759, died in London July 29th, 1833). For nearly half a century a member of the House of Commons and, for six parliaments during that period, one of the two representatives for Yorkshire. In an age and country fertile in great and good men, he was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candor, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labor, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the Empire: In the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God. But in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition. He outlived, however, all enmity; and in the evening of his days, withdrew from public life and public observation to the bosom of his family. Yet he died not unnoticed or forgotten by his country. The peers and commons of England, with the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker at their head, in solemn procession from their respective houses, carried him to his fitting place among the mighty dead around, here to repose: Till, through the merits of Jesus Christ, his only redeemer and savior (whom, in his life and in his writings he had desired to glorify), he shall rise in the resurrection of the just.

The lessons of Wilberforce’s life reduce to this: A worthy goal should always inspire. Don’t let any setback slow you up. Maintain an optimism worthy of the goal itself, and do all within your character and power to rally others to the cause. How on earth could men and women of good conscience ever do otherwise?

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Lawrence W. Reed
Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education and author of Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of ProgressivismFollow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

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